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Career Track Live
Advice for Young Professionals

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, May 22, 2006 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart, ambitious young workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are establishing their careers locally, and offers advice online as well.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon!

Lots of questions and comments, most of them about my column on flip-flops at the office. You know my stance on the matter (it's a major pet peeve), but I'm happy to hear (and share) alternative thoughts as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen,

Thanks for your "unpopular" take on flip-flops as commuting or work attire. I couldn't agree more that they are exactly the wrong choice for anywhere but home or the beach. I've yet to meet a fellow employer who has anything but negative things to say about how they look (and sound), not to mention the impression they convey of the wearer.

washingtonpost.com: Here's Mary Ellen's article: Avoid the Flip-Flop Flap and Join the Well-Heeled , (Post, May 21)

Mary Ellen Slayter: A kindred spirit! And a link to my original rant.

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Arlington, Va.: While I agree with your Sunday article regarding the wearing of flip-flops in the office, I must tell you that my boss and her second in command wear flip-flops most of the year. My boss's boss wears flip-flops. And my boss has ridiculed those who think flip-flops are not right for the office. She's had four promotions in one year so they haven't slowed her down. I'm just saying.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Maybe we can send all the diehard flip-flop wearers to work for her then!

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Gaithersburg, Md.: May I ask an ethical or even silly question? I cannot locate the disk I kept my resume on. Is it ok to ask HR for a copy of the resume they have on file for me so that I can make a copy?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Did you forget what you put on it? This is why it's very important not to make things up on your resume. It can be so hard to keep your stories straight.

Just kidding!

It will make you look a bit silly, but I guess the alternative is even less appealing to you: writing up a new resume. Next time, make more than one copy. I have one on my laptop, one on a flash stick, one on the Web, one that I've emailed myself to my gmail accounts, and so on. The whole world would have to send for me not to have a copy of my resume.

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Baltimore, Md.: I'm finishing my BA this week and heading off to grad school in the fall (a master's in Classics, with PhD to follow). While I'm quite confident I want to go down the academic route, I have a tiny bit of anxiety about what seems like a career commitment. Is there a point at which I've spent so much time in grad school that I've locked myself out of non- academic careers?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nope. Most people who head into academia at first don't wind up working there for the long haul. If it doesn't work out for you, you'll be in good company. Just try not to borrow your life's earnings over the next six years.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mary Ellen:

I want to get a graduate certificate in PR. I want to become a Public Affairs Specialist in the Federal Government.

Currently, I am a secretary in the federal government, and I really want to switch to the public affairs field, because I'm more interested in this field.

However, I also found out that I could roll over my certificate credits to a master's degree in public policy, but I really don't know if I could do school for another year, when getting a grad certificate is faster and cheaper.

My question is: do you think that the grad certificate will carry the same weight? I found that most public affairs positions in the federal government want you to have at least a year's worth of grad courses if you are like me and don't really have two to five years of public affairs experience.

Signed,

What to do?

P.S. I must admit though, I read your May 8, 2006, chat and agree that we all should relax. I'm 27 by the way, and I didn't realize the importance of relaxing until I suffered an anxiety attack on Mother's Day weekend.

washingtonpost.com: And here's that May 8 chat for reference...

Mary Ellen Slayter: Since you're already a federal worker, why don't you ask someone who would be doing the hiring for one of the positions you're interested in. They should be able to tell you what kind of education and experience would make you most competitive.

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Austin, Texas: Hi Mary Ellen,

I just graduated from business school and I am looking for a job. I am using the typical job search resources, but wanted to get your opinion on using a head hunter. I don't know anything about where to start and how to choose the best one for me, so any info you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, first keep in mind that headhunters don't work for you. They work for the companies that need positions filled. So choosing the "best one" for you isn't really the issue. Instead, research recruiters who work in your desired field and get your resume in their hands. You don't pay them, and you're not limited to just one.

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Maryland: I graduated a year ago and started working out of school almost immediately.

I'm considering looking for a new job. My questions is two-fold. First, what do I put on my resume? Do I keep all my internships from college on it considering I've only got a year of experience under my belt? Secondly, do I let my employer know I'm searching for a new job or do I keep that hush hush? The reason I ask is I don't feel entirely comfortable taking days off to go on interviews only to lie to my current employer about why I need off. I'm not sure what the appropriate etiquette is in this situation.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, you include your internships

No, you don't tell your boss you're looking. Schedule the interviews early or late in the day, or at lunch. The best solution is to take a vacation day.

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Alexandria, Va.: Every time I go to my boss office to get a question answered (and it's not too often when I go), I usually have to 15 minutes of sitting there while she answers her phone and cleans out her mailbox to get an answer. Should I be bothered? This happens every time.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If it's not that often, I would let it go.

If it's every day, I'd give her a call to let her know you're coming. If she still seems busy, ask if you should come back later. That should prompt her to give you her full attention.

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Miami, Fla.: I graduated in 2005 and have been temping for one year at the same organization. I will start law school in the fall and my supervisor is aware of my departure. Am I required to write a letter of resignation?

Mary Ellen Slayter: As a temp? No, I don't think so. As long as the temp agency knows you're leaving, that should be sufficient.

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FLIP FLOP FIX -- RE: Your article!: Mary Ellen,

Good article this weekend! I agree, perception is reality and flip-flops, for the sake of comfort, don't cut it in the workplace -- though I have tried, with regret. BUT, I have found a perfect solution. I was in Carbon this weekend and bought really cute, work appropriate COMFORTABLE shoes! Miz Mooz, they are low-key enough for the office, comfortable enough for the Metro and I broke them out for happy hour! Sharing the love -- www.CarbonDC.com.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Those shoes are very cute!

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Washington, D.C.: What do you do when you are at an interview and realize you do not want the job? Do you continue to smile, nod, and assert your skills or when they ask "does this sound interesting to you" do you answer "no" and leave? It seems rude to just up and leave, but then it seems the only alternative is to lie. Thanks for your help!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Be polite, go through the motions. Consider it practice for future interviews. Decline any further interviews if they call you back.

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Northwest D.C.: I am an experienced worker (41 years of work experience in gov't, private industry, and law firms) in only a support staff level. I am currently assigned to work for a senior partner who is extremely disorganized, absent-minded, and probably attention deficit as well. He's also very dependent on his assistant to keep him organized. He inserts comments into his instructions that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. (For instance, he asked me to set up a conference call with a client, commented London time so it would have to be at a certain time convenient for all parties. NOBODY ON THE CALL WAS IN LONDON!) I followed a disorganized person who sat at this desk before. First off, it's difficult taking on a new supervisor to begin with. But to follow another disorganized person is a double whammy. I feel like I'm stamping out forest fires all day. Now he's denying me vacation days which I must use or lose before the end of June. (I call them mental health days.) One previous supervisor at this office drove me to ulcers. Should I let this one drive me nuts as well?

Mary Ellen Slayter: No job is worth an ulcer. I'd look someplace new.

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Arlington, Va.: I was thinking about getting my resume redone professionally but wonder if it is worth the cost and, if so, where would be a good place to do this? Is Monster's service worthwhile or is it better to work through a local service?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Hire someone locally. There are a lot of good people who do this work, and at good prices.

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Flip-flops, NO: One million thank you's for your column on flip-flops yesterday. I don't think it will make a dent on some of the twenty-somethings in my office who just cannot understand what is wrong with wearing flip flops in the office and feel horribly mistreated at being told they can't, but at least I can give them something to read on the subject. Helps that you are a young 'un, too.

Other alternative footwear includes the infinite variety of ballet flats like the kind I am wearing now ...

Mary Ellen Slayter: I like those, too.

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Dupont Circle: If flip-flops are unprofessional, what about wacky (purple, blue, etc.) hair colors?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It depends on the office. You can get away with it in more creative places. Law firm or the Hill? No way. Advertising shop? They'll be disappointed if you don't do something somewhat edgy.

I also have to say that I don't see dyed hair and flip flops as quite the same. The dress code "violations" that bug me personally tend to be related to too much skin exposure, not excessive edginess or even casualness. I.e., I'm forgiving of jeans, tattoos and nose rings, but not low-cut tank tops or shoes that don't even cover your feet. (This could just be my Gen X vs Gen Y bias here, of course.)

I used to dye my hair a lot (though the weirdest I went since college was pink.) I never did it at a job interview. Now that my job involves meeting with outside people more often, I don't do it at all. Though honestly, I just got tired of the upkeep/outgrew it. I think that's what happens with most people in terms of super-casual college-type clothes, as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen,

I always admire your thoughtful and helpful column. I am a recent college graduate working in professional services. After being asked to resign from one position after a brief tenure on account of lack of attention to detail and a "bad attitude," I joined a competitor company. Here, after six months, I was issued a final warning for those same reasons. My friends and family tell me that I may act arrogantly towards my colleagues and superiors, and I try to address that. However, I feel like my current boss is dead set against me and has always been. A nice guy as a person, he seems intent on seeing my work (and relations with colleagues) in the worst possible light. Moreover, he is inconsistent and difficult to communicate with.

I would like to stay with the company I am with but, obviously, want to transfer to a different group. Is there any way I can convince HR or people in another group that my boss is unfair rather than that I am arrogant and inattentive? Seems like a tall order.

Thank you in advance!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Since this has happened twice in a row, I think you need to look at your own behavior more closely, and not get too worked up about making your boss out to be the bad guy. Listen to these two companies that have let you go. Listen to your friends and family.

I'd start looking for another job, but also get yourself to therapy or a career coach. Something's going on here, and you need to fix it sooner rather than later.

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Flip-flops, Va.: Gee, I figured that all the flop-clad young ladies were wearing them as commuting shoes (I still don't like it). There are actually people who wear them as work shoes?

I don't think I'm an old fogey at 33, but another shoe faux pas I see is women wearing three-inch evening shoes to work. I don't see this often, fortunately, but come on, where's the sense of propriety?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, people really wear them to work.

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You think that's bad ...: If you think flip-flops are bad, you'd have been utterly appalled at something that happened to me last summer.

I bike to work frequently. I came in one morning to the boss in a panic, hair-on-fire, take-care-of-it-NOW emergency. It took a good hour or so to deal with this emergency, but there I was, bopping around the office in my bike jersey, spandex shorts, and cleats, until I had a chance to go to the ladies' room and get changed.

The boss never said a word -- other than to thank me for taking care of the emergency.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That was an emergency. Apples and oranges.

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Washington, D.C.:

I have an upcoming interview with a very high ranking senator. It is a committee job. Any words of advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't wear flip-flops.

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When you say no flip-flops : ... do you mean just the rubber ones you can wear in the shower, or ones made of leather, too? Is anything that "thwacks" considered a flip-flop? Incidentally, my boss -- a conservative woman in her late 50s -- is wearing green flip-flops with little rhinestones on them, so quit blaming us twenty-somethings!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I hate all the thwacking shoes! I don't care how fancy they are. If your boss is wearing them, though, you're probably safe to thwack away.

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D.C.: The flip-flop rule is easy -- if you have a job where you can wear shorts to work, then you can wear flip-flops. If you wouldn't wear shorts, then you have no business wearing flip-flops. And yes, some jobs are really that casual.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Actually, that sounds completely reasonable to me!

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D.C.: For the would-be public affairs specialist ... I am a senior one who does help my boss review the resumes. The grad degree is weighted and does help with the hiring (I don't think it necessarily prepares one for the job though). Proofreading is essential -- we are looking for good writers, editors and communicators and we get a lot of applications, so one too many typos and that will be that. Don't spell the job title wrong (or list the wrong one -- I remember one cover letter that listed some other agency's public affairs specialist opening). Right there you're showing you don't pay attention to detail, which is key.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for the inside scoop!

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Ballston, Va.: Loved your flip-flop article. As you stated in the article, one should look to their superior for guidance for what and what not to wear. What if the supervisor has no clue on that? Today she came in with watermelon capris and her husbands polo (worn out) shirt. May I add, I work for a financial consulting team where most of the employees dress appropriately. I believe my sup. gets away with it because she handles the assistants (lowest on the ladder here).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Pay her no mind. Look to her boss, and your other colleagues for guidance.

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RE: The arrogant firee: Your boss probably is just tired of the attitude and wants you gone. After the first warning, you really have to turn it around and be practically perfect. Given that this is likely your third warning, the boss isn't going to go out on a limb for you or try to see your interactions and work in a positive light -- I am guessing he tried that the first few months. Right now, the tide is really against you and you are going to have to work quadruple hard to just stay employed. I also doubt HR is going to assign you somewhere new given you have the crappy track record and not your boss.

And you sound a bit delusional when you think a group change is going to fix this problem. One thing you may want to do is ask for brutally honest 360 degree feedback from everyone you work with and ask for examples. You may find it illuminating and helpful in the next job.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Agreed

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RE: Maryland: I am in a similar position as Maryland. My problem is that I work for a university and would be looking to stay within that university setting. My boss is the head of the department in which I work, and I'm worried he'll find out that I'm looking for a job. Plus, I've been a good worker here and would like to use my boss as a reference. What to do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: In that situation, I think you have to go to your boss and ask for his support. Word will most certainly filter back to him that you're applying for this job, and it's better that he hear it from you.

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Arlington, Va.: I notice that there is a lot of flip flop attacking in general that is directed at younger workers, but, no one ever goes after the older workers who dress like they rolled out of bed in non-matching clothes that are wrinkled, hair not done, etc., etc. I may drive and walk in flip-flops and work in three inch stilettos, but I look nice everyday and make an effort. It's such a double standard sometimes. Sorry. Just needed to vent.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's not my job to scold older workers, though! The Post would need a separate column for that.

And stilettos? Don't get that really. But as long as you can walk in them, that's your business. At least they don't make That Noise.

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Anonymous: Nothing great to add to the discussion, but what a terrific column this weekend. If the writing hadn't been as good, it would have looked just petty or stupid, but you did a great job getting your message across in an entertaining way.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Glad you liked it!

Petty and Stupid were my nicknames for the first two drafts.

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D.C.: Another question -- how is wearing sneakers/tennis shoes while commuting any different than wearing flip flops? (Assuming in both cases the wearer changes into work shoes upon arriving at the office).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Honestly, I don't care as much about the commuting in flip-flops.

Mainly, though, I don't get the shoe change thing, for sneakers or flip-flops. Every single pair of shoes I wear to work are professional AND comfortable. None have more than an inch and half heel. I've got high heels, but those are for dates, not the office.

This isn't that hard for me. I must be missing something.

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RE: Flip-flops: Serious question time: I have two pairs of sandals that yes, make flip-flop sounds, but they aren't flip-flops, they're just regular sandals. Would you consider those inappropriate as well? (Mainly asking for curiosity, since they're allowed by our dress code, as I work in a very casual office).

Mary Ellen Slayter: They would bug me, in the same way stupid ring tones bug me when people leave their phones at their desk while they step away for an hour.

But if the sandals are allowed in your office, you're obviously fine.

A whole office of that noise. My nightmare.

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Falls Church, Va.: For the classical studies PhD-er: pure academic study is a noble calling, but if he or she is borrowing even a cent to pay for it, reevaluate your situation. Borrowing for law, medical, or business school may pay off, but borrowing for the humanities will cause nothing but pain. Either get a full ride (which you should, if you are good enough), or pay your own way. Any while an MA may open doors in the non-academic world if and when you seek a job, a PhD may close them.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep to most of those. I don't think a PhD is going to make them unemployable though.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for the lively discussion. See y'all next month!

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